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Last updateFri, 03 Apr 2020 5pm

Literature

05 Mar 2020
Even now, six years after Charles Bowden died, I still roam around bookstores, hoping I missed an old title of his, or wondering if an editor has unearthed a long-lost manuscript. Ever since I first encountered Bowden’s dark and deeply personal reporting about the Southwestern desert and the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands almost 20 years ago, his writing has ensorcelled me. I’m not the only one aching for more of his insights and experiences. The University of Texas Press, the Charles Clyde Bowden Literary Trust and the Lannan Foundation created the Charles Bowden Publishing Project, whose goal is threefold: re-releasing the author’s out-of-print books, publishing three new manuscripts uncovered after his death, and commissioning new books about him. So when a package arrived last year—delivering America’s Most Alarming Writer: Essays on the Life and Work of Charles Bowden and Bowden’s own Dakotah: The Return of the Future—I spent a sleepless night, plowing…
27 Feb 2020
Jutting more than 7,000 feet from the valley floor, the Teton Range offers some of the United States’ most dramatic vistas. But the jagged peaks are mirrored by equally sharp economic divides in the communities below: Lured by both natural beauty and favorable tax codes, the ultra-wealthy have flocked to Teton County, Wyo., making it home to the highest level of wealth inequality in the country. For Justin Farrell, a sociologist at Yale University who was born in Wyoming, Teton County provided the perfect location to interrogate income disparity’s impacts on both natural and human communities. His new book, Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West—the result of hundreds of interviews with both the area’s haves and its have-nots—reads like a blend between an extended case study and investigative journalism. As Farrell introduces readers to the thinking of millionaires and billionaires on issues like environmental conservation…
13 Feb 2020
In 1986, the year before he died, Andy Warhol produced Cowboys and Indians, a portfolio of prints commemorating the American West. Featuring almost-psychedelic silkscreens of Theodore Roosevelt, George Custer, Geronimo and others, the series puts a historical spin on Warhol’s trademark celebrity fixation. Warhol skewers some heroic, heteronormative myths, offering a more satiric, queer interpretation. But he fails to fully address the mythological frontier’s racism—or his own appropriation of Indigenous iconography. A recent exhibition and book, Warhol and the West (University of California Press), revisits Cowboys and Indians, exploring Warhol’s lifelong fascination with the region. The book also suggests that Warhol’s entire Western oeuvre—three decades of films and prints—is an exercise in paradox: Even as he enshrines his subjects’ nobility, he can’t resist fluorescing them into campy icons. It’s an approach that perhaps only an outsider—a gay artist from New York City—would attempt. The result challenges typical Hollywood notions of…
08 Jan 2020
My mother grew up on a tiny farm on the outskirts of Bakersfield in the 1960s. When I was little, she told me stories about the Basques who sheared their sheep, and a childhood spent wandering among the family’s fruit and nut trees. It was a bucolic picture of California’s Central Valley—the type of picturesque image that journalist Mark Arax, in his sprawling new treatise on water and agriculture in the Golden State, is quick to undermine: Today, small family farms are vanishing; agribusiness is expanding; the earth is sinking; aquifers are emptying; rivers run dry; and laborers toil for a pittance. In The Dreamt Land: Chasing Water and Dust Across California, Arax roams the state and plumbs its history to reveal the causes and consequences of the current water crisis. He reports on farms and the pipelines that supply them, interviewing fieldworkers and billionaire landowners, and interjecting tales of…
02 Jan 2020
In her brilliant fourth novel, The Other Americans, Moroccan-American writer Laila Lalami paints an unsparing portrait of the American West, deliberately rejecting the familiar frontier stories of redemptive violence or restorative wilderness. Instead, Lalami’s West is a place where outcasts and immigrants struggle to co-exist in a desert that sprawls between a national park and a military base—yes, we’re talking about our local high desert. Simultaneously lyrical and accessible, The Other Americans is both an engaging whodunit and a profound meditation on identity and community in the contemporary American West. The Arabic word for Morocco, “Al-Maghrib,” also means “the West.” American literary expatriates such as Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, who made Morocco their home during the middle of the 20th century, drew mythological connections between Al-Maghrib and the American West, imagining Morocco as a new frontier on which they were countercultural pioneers. Lalami has long been a trenchant critic…
05 Dec 2019
In The Grave on the Wall, poet and essayist Brandon Shimoda focuses on what remains after great loss. In this work of lyric nonfiction, he writes about his grandfather, Midori Shimoda, who died after years of memory loss from Alzheimer’s disease. Midori was one of more than 110,000 American residents, most of them U.S. citizens, who were forcibly incarcerated by the federal government during World War II because of their Japanese ancestry. Shimoda travels to places from Midori’s life to tell not just the story of his grandfather, but also of himself and the racist history that, then as now, has damaged families and excluded many from citizenship. Along the way, he sees much that has been irredeemably ground to dust. His book is a memorable and memorializing work that depicts the pain of trying to recover what can never be regained, from lost lives to a lost sense of…
10 Oct 2019
The American West is a region that has been conscripted into the service of the nation’s frontier myth. Nowhere are the absurdities and tragedies of this myth more apparent than in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. From the hackneyed re-enactments of Tombstone’s Gunfight at the OK Corral to the real-life vigilantes and outlaws who haunt the deserts along the borderline, the violence of the frontier is alive in the borderlands in a way that feels simultaneously anachronistic and immediate. New York University historian Greg Grandin explores this strange affinity between the frontier stockade and the border wall in The End of The Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. The scope of Grandin’s frontier history extends far beyond the borderlands or even the American West, ranging from the genocidal Indian wars of the 13 colonies to recent interventions into the affairs of the Central American nations…
05 Sep 2019
Rowdy Burns doesn’t look like much when he first meets ranch hand Wendell Newman. He’s a silent slip of a boy, 7 years old, hollow-cheeked and hollowed-out by trauma—a mother struggling with drugs, and days spent alone in an empty apartment. He’s “the tiniest little thing for miles,” Wendell thinks. And yet Rowdy becomes the gravitational force that draws together two families long torn apart by rural class and political divisions that ultimately erupted in murder. Joe Wilkins’ gripping debut novel, Fall Back Down When I Die, opens soon after Rowdy’s arrival in Wendell’s care, in a trailer in a hardscrabble corner of eastern Montana, during the first year of the Obama administration. Wendell is just 24 himself, a bookish former high school basketball star who now works for the wealthy rancher leasing his family’s land, struggling to pay down back taxes and his dead mother’s medical bills. Rowdy is…
07 Aug 2019
Many of the young female protagonists in Sabrina and Corina, Denver author Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s poised, rich debut story collection, grow up in fractured families—in which one parent leaves, dies or simply fails at the job. But these families’ roots run generations deep in Colorado, and a grandmother often brings stability through her staunch love and practical caregiving, offering simple remedies derived from a Mexican-American or indigenous heritage: garlic for warts, potato slices on temples for headaches, herbs instead of brain-addling fentanyl for the pain of cancer patients, and for “a cold or a broken heart … a warm cup of atole made only with blue corn.” Although these women demonstrate abundant love, they are far from stereotypical or saccharine characters. One, armed with a gun, defends her home from an intruder, and all of them tell it like is. The grandmother in the title story says her granddaughter’s absentee father…
18 Jul 2019
Who hasn’t wondered what a favorite writer might have bestowed on the world if not silenced too soon? What fan doesn’t long for more—letters, a journal, unpublished fragments, even an annotated grocery list? Devotees of the late southern Utah essayist Ellen Meloy need no longer wait. The sketches gathered in Seasons predate her untimely 2004 death by up to 10 years and are not, strictly speaking, last words. For those who haven’t yet discovered Meloy, they can serve as a gateway drug to her profound, sometimes deceptively breezy work. Seasons’ opening salvo, the thoughtful but hilarious “I Stapled My Hair to the Roof,” encapsulates her approach. Outspoken and passionate, Meloy skewers grandstanding, mindless consumption, militarism, patriarchy: “In pioneer times, while the men mumbled about posses and punched each other’s lights out, the grandmothers of my Anglo neighbors simply got off their horses and took care of business.” She makes an…

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